Theatre Calgary trades risk for a sure thing with crowd-pleasing season closer Billy Elliot

Theatre Calgary has taken some chances this year (which, I must say, fills me with joy even when I don’t love each and every show). But they’re closing out their season with a crowd-pleasing, can’t-help-but-love-it sure-thing. Kids, dancing, local favourite Kevin Corey doing cartwheels — you’d have to be a bit of a curmudgeon to leave without a smile on your face. 

The musical by Lee Hall and Elton John was based on Hall’s 2000 blockbuster film, and debuted in the West End in 2005. Since then, it’s been a global smash, sweeping awards and spawning thousands of young male dancers with a Billy Elliot dream. If you’ve been living under a rock, it revolves around a young boy in north east England in the mid-’80s, the youngest son in a mining family during the legendary miners’ strike. Billy is sent to boxing lessons by his widower father, but instead spends his afternoons illicitly sneaking into the local dance classes. Things come to a head with his very traditional family when he has an opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.

Theatre Calgary artistic director Stafford Arima was roundly criticized earlier this season for the largely New York-based cast in Mary and Max, but there is an undeniable difference in the level of experience in this large and entirely local cast. The articulation is less precise here, the balance between instruments and voices is less consistent, and for the most part, vocal tone is less controlled. But the singers are well-cast and blend well, and Arima has plenty of experience staging a big juicy musical like this, so he is capable of taking full advantage of each performer’s strengths.

Dex Drewitz and Rhett Udsen play Billy in rotation, with Drewitz taking on the role the night I saw the show. The 10-year-old Calgary performer has a challenging task in portraying Billy’s gradual but definite journey — he is initially awkward in dance class, but harbours the seeds of talent, and slowly develops astonishing skill as he works with his teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Caitlynne Medrek). I was prepared to be fairly forgiving of a very young performer with limited stage experience, but there was no need — Drewitz nails it.

Medrek is also a strong presence as Mrs. Wilkinson, and carries much of the first act as one of the most engaging characters apart from her young protege. Billy’s father (Dennis Robert Dubbin) isn’t as well drawn in act one, but comes into his own in act two as he struggles to understand his son’s dreams and find a way to support him to find a life outside the mines. Dubbin’s powerful voice is also showcased in act two, with Deep Into the Ground and He Could be a Star. The only other standout in terms of vocal power is Michelle Rawlings in a sadly brief appearance as Billy’s dead mother, but the exquisitely-matched duet of Rawlings and Medrek in The Letter is worth the price of admission.

Drewitz is a true triple-threat, with skill in characterization, dance and singing, but the other unexpected joy of the production is Marc-Emile Fallu as Billy’s friend Michael. In a relatively small role, he steals every scene, and kicks off Expressing Yourself with a delight that is utterly infectious.

The supposedly Geordie accents are a bit of a trainwreck with very few exceptions, but if you can overlook it (or don’t watch too much British TV), the teamwork in the ensemble is impressive and makes up for the odd weak spot. Alberta Ballet veteran Yukichi Hattori is responsible for the new choreography which spices up the well-known (among musical theatre nerds) scenes, and Scott Reid’s set and projections are predictably flawless.

I’m looking forward to more risk-taking at TC next season, but every once in a while, a sure thing is OK too.

(Photo of Dex Drewitz as Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot The Musical, courtesy Trudie Lee.)

Billy Elliot runs at the Max Bell Theatre until May 12.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.